Back in 1898, Canada issued a Christmas postage stamp depicting a map of the world on which countries of the British Empire were printed in red. Emblazoned on this stamp were the words, “We hold a vaster empire than has been.”
Perhaps now it is time to issue a stamp celebrating the birth of the new American Empire, although most Americans still find it difficult to see what has been going on in Iraq as a new wave of neocolonial imperialism.
For all the debate behind the use of terms like “American Empire,” the agenda and outcome are blatantly simple. In Iraq we are witnessing the expanding American dominance over an entire country through direct military occupation.
After living under a brutal dictator’s regime for more than three decades, the impoverished people of Iraq are now the subjects of an American empire-in-the-making. Worse still, that empire is in serious self-denial, accepting its role with grandiose presumption, while all but ignoring the lessons of other historical empires.
The power of an empire is both tempting and deluding. Possessing it seduces people into believing they ought to use it; and when it is used enough for its own sake, concerns about accountability fall by the wayside. This is exactly the case of the U.S. today.
America’s much-heralded plan for building “a new Iraq” is, in reality, almost non-existent. Its leaders and foreign policy advisors know little about the people, their history, their culture, or their sociopolitical makeup. Worse still, they seem uninterested in revisiting and relearning the lessons of decades of European imperial rule over Iraq and numerous other nations.
Thus, April 19, 2003 sadly marked not only the fall of Baghdad, but the onslaught of a new American imperialism fraught with its own indecision, infighting, ignorance, and administrative inconsistencies.
To salve the rift between U.S. State and Defense Departments I am proposing the establishing of a new Department of Overseas Security to run Iraq. The objectives of the new department are of course to assure American security, both militarily and economically, by ruling Iraq as if it were a new American protectorate.
The results of the experiment may take years to find out, but Iraqis will again pay the price by default, whether it is a success or failure. Naturally, no one has thought to ask their opinion, or to listen when it is expressed.
Paul Bremer, the top American civil administrator in Iraq, recently threw millions of Iraqis out of work by abruptly dissolving the Ba’ath Party, the Iraqi army, and government departments such as the Ministry of Information, all within weeks of the fall of Baghdad. No wonder many Iraqis feel much worse off today than they did under Saddam’s regime.
With hundreds of thousands of Iraqis chanting “No to America, No to Saddam, Yes to Islam,” during regular Friday demonstrations, America’s administrators have become nervous and hesitant about earlier promises of building “a new and democratic Iraq.” But an increasing number of Iraqis would have few regrets if America did renege on its rash promises of recreating the country in its colonial image. They are simply eager to see American forces go home.
For the Americans, “Yes to Islam” means, in effect, “Yes to Iranian-style Islam.” U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has said the United States will not allow a religious government like Iran’s to take hold in Iraq. But many Iraqis, including powerful Shi’ite Muslim leaders, have not said “yes” to an Iranian-style Islamic system in their country.
Then why have the Americans so persistently misread the Iraqi mind? It is because they have simply not done their homework; they didn’t take the trouble to learn about the country or the people they are now occupying.
It is a safe working hypothesis that the pace of any nation’s imperial expansion would be smoother going if its leaders would make a sincere effort to understand their intended subjects. A corollary to this hypothesis is that the more accurately an empire understands its subjects, the longer it can enslave them. The British, French, Germans, Belgians and Italians all took this approach in varying degrees. Now it is the Iraqis’ turn, for better or worse, to be on the receiving end of America’s heavy-handed authority.
It has been said that “in the physiology of colonialism it is results, not motives, that matter.” So how can one begin to understand the context of any debate about the so-called real motives of the American invasion of Iraq, or speculate about whether weapons of mass destruction will be found anywhere in the country? It is simply a wasted argument.
America is finally beginning to realize the harsh reality of Iraq’s complex political and social landscape. But what now are its options? If it leaves Iraq too soon, chaos would result; if it stays too long to “finish the job,” there will be more armed resistance. And if free elections were held for a new government, Iraqis would more than likely put an Islamically based political party into power.
So the Americans are faced with the unenviable task of finding a new Iraqi strongman to answer to my proposed Washington’s Department of Overseas Security. After all, this is what a good empire would do.
America, however, has shown a poor track record where learning the lessons of history is involved. And that leaves the Iraqis, once again, as the subjects of an uncertain neocolonial experiment. Welcome to the new Protectorate of Iraq.
Mohamed Elmasry is a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Waterloo and national president of the Canadian Islamic Congress.